Diversifying MyPlate: North American Indigenous Cuisine

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans and its associated MyPlate graphic are commonly referenced resources for learning about healthy and nutritious eating. The recently-updated 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans put a stronger focus on meeting dietary recommendations while keeping cultural preferences in mind, and resources highlighting culturally inclusive approaches are valuable tools for translating the general messages of MyPlate and the Dietary Guidelines to more Americans.

This article is part of a series that shows how healthy eating can take on many different forms outside of the Western diet. While for many, meals might not exactly resemble MyPlate, the featured guest authors will demonstrate what healthy eating looks like in their culture, and how many of the food groups and principles can translate across cultures and cuisines. Each article in this series is written by a registered dietitian who is experienced in integrating culturally inclusive approaches into their work.

About the Author

My name is Sharon Swampy, and I am a registered dietitian with a First Nations Cree and Mexican background. I currently work in a clinic on a reservation, mostly providing 1:1 nutrition sessions with a focus on diabetes prevention and management, disordered eating, and intuitive eating. At times, I also work on some nutrition-focused community projects and food security initiatives.

I grew up on a reservation called Maskwacis, and at the time, nutrition was not talked about much within Indigenous communities. Later on, I started to realize that there was a lack of representation of dietitians with an Indigenous background. This meant nutrition information was often shortsighted for Indigenous communities. Also, as someone who has struggled with an eating disorder in the past, I understood the impact that diet culture and its narrow views on health can have on our relationship with food.

Growing up and not seeing people of color, size diversity, and cultural foods really represented in the media, it almost made it seem like achieving good health was inaccessible for some other cultures. I want to help bridge that gap by promoting diversity and being a supportive voice. This is part of why I truly value and prioritize helping clients to improve their relationship with food and to create sustainable, healthy habits—all while keeping traditions and culture in mind.

What are some traditional Indigenous foods in North America?

According to The Assembly of First Nations, traditional foods are defined as those that originate from local plant or animal resources that can be harvested from the land. In general, traditional foods are local, seasonal, nutritious, and environmentally friendly. Herbs and medicinal plants are also important. Examples include sage, cedar, tobacco, and sweet grass, which are known as sacred medicines.

Many foods also hold a spiritual and cultural importance. This is because certain traditional foods were not only seen as nourishment but also as a connection to Mother Earth and to ancestral knowledge. Foods considered sacred held a lot of value, as they were viewed as a gift, helped to sustain health, and were an important part of ceremonies and community gatherings. However, it is important to recognize that there are many distinct cultural groups in different geographic regions. Every nation sees themselves as an independent nation with their own language, culture, and customs. Therefore, in the past, the foods consumed largely depended on geographic location and seasons. This meant that many foods were only available at their peak during specific times of the year, which is why methods of food preservation such as smoking, drying, curing, and canning were important. Although there is no single culinary standard for Indigenous peoples collectively, traditional diets often consisted of wild game and/or fish and a variety of plant-based foods, such as fruit, vegetables, roots, flowers, grains, nuts, and seeds. These foods are primarily sourced through hunting, fishing, gathering, and harvesting.

How Indigenous Diets Have Shifted

Traditionally, Indigenous diets emphasized whole foods and wild foods. There was always a connection with and respect for the land, animals, and plants, and nothing was ever wasted. However, as European settlers began to arrive, new foods and food customs were introduced. Eventually, Indigenous Peoples were forced off their lands onto reservations, which disrupted traditional foodways, and access to many traditional foods was lost. This led to a reliance on government-issued rations, also known as commodity foods. These were canned and packaged foods that tended to be higher in fat and calories—such as butter, cheese, and canned meat—and were not as nutritious compared with traditional foods; this played a role in shifting traditional diets.

This shift has persisted over generations due to factors such as barriers to food access, trauma, and systemic poverty. This is not to say that these commodity foods should not be eaten; however, it is one reason why processed meats (such as bologna) and other foods are more commonly eaten today in Indigenous diets. Although the forced removal off ancestral lands by the government has played a role in the loss of foodways and culture, we are starting to revitalize ancestral knowledge and foodways. For example, we are starting to see more Indigenous chefs, restaurants, cookbooks, nutrition education, and food sovereignty initiatives than ever before.

Indigenous Meal Patterns

In the past, the eating habits of our ancestors were intuitive and consisted of some staple foods. Through an Indigenous lens, the concept of health and well-being is viewed as a balance between social, physical, emotional, and spiritual aspects of life. When this balance is achieved, health and wellbeing are also achieved. In other words, food is seen as more than just fuel. Factors such as culture and tradition, community, gratitude, and love all play a big role. Food is seen as one way to retain cultural identity, bring people together, and as a way to connect us to nature and to our ancestors through storytelling and the passing of food knowledge and traditions to future generations.

Some of the most well-known Indigenous foods are the Three Sisters—corn, beans, and squash—as they were staple foods. This trio grows well together in the same soil and comes together to form many nutrient-dense dishes, such as Three Sisters soup or stew. Although dishes and ingredients can vary from nation to nation, many dishes are cooked with seasonal ingredients and are high in both protein and fiber.

How do the MyPlate Food Groups align with the dietary preferences of the Plains Cree?

Below, I will focus on some foods traditional to the Plains Cree. Note that these are foods traditionally eaten in the past. Today, it is hard to describe what commonly eaten foods are, as factors such as food insecurity, food access, and loss of traditional ways affect food choices and access to eating and preparing foods as they were traditionally in the past.

Vegetables

Common vegetables included wild greens and roots such as dandelion greens, cattail roots, camas bulbs, wild onions, and turnips; and starchy vegetables such as corn and different squash varieties.

Protein

Buffalo was the predominant protein, and was used to make many dishes, including pemmican, which is dried wild meat made into a powder and mixed with melted fat and sometimes berries. Other game meat such as moose, deer, and duck were popular, along with certain types of fish. Plant-based protein sources included beans and certain types of nuts and seeds, such as sunflower seeds or pumpkin seeds.

Grains

Popular grains consisted of corn and wild rice, while wheat and wheat products were not originally part of the traditional diet. Corn was very versatile, as it could be dried, ground into a flour, and used in many dishes, including cornmeal. Wild rice, an aquatic grass, was considered an important crop and was also used in many dishes.

Fruit

Some popular fruits included berries, such as chokecherries, cranberries, saskatoon berries, blueberries, wild strawberries, and raspberries. Fruit was not only consumed fresh, but also canned, dried, or in the form of sauces.

Dairy and Alternatives

Traditionally, dairy was not consumed—it was introduced later by European settlers. Calcium and vitamin D, which are important nutrients found in dairy products, were supplied through foods such as wild greens, seeds, squash, and fish.

The Bottom Line

Indigenous cuisine is very diverse; however, it is hard to distinguish by some, as Indigenous food systems and knowledge have been displaced due to the loss of traditional ways. A lot of Indigenous knowledge is passed through word of mouth, storytelling, and through elders and the community. This means that it is more difficult to attain this knowledge when the connection to traditional ways is disrupted. This is why working towards revitalizing, restoring, and representing this knowledge is important. We are in the process of incorporating and revitalizing traditional foods and foodways while also mending our relationship to the land and food! Lastly, we need to remember that we can honor our health and respect our bodies without having to sacrifice our culture and traditions.

Indigenous cuisine is one of many diverse cuisines that can serve as an example of healthy and nutritious eating. This cuisine can broadly encompass the recommendations promoted in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and their associated MyPlate graphic.

Q&A on Culturally Sensitive Approaches to Nutrition

Sharon also answered a few questions posed by IFIC about navigating the nutrition profession in a culturally sensitive, inclusive manner.

What are some of the challenges that you or your clients/patients have encountered with using resources like MyPlate, and how have you navigated those?

When it comes to traditional dishes, many are mixed dishes—for example, soups. This can make it a challenge to interpret the MyPlate recommendations, as it is not always typical to have different food groups separated on a plate. In addition, many clients believe that food has to be fresh and that convenience foods are not nutritious. This is a challenge, because it can sometimes cause guilt and stress around making food choices.

Furthermore, many Indigenous communities are still facing barriers to food access and food security. This means that it is difficult for some to access or afford traditional foods. Some may even be unfamiliar with certain traditional foods if they did not grow up eating them. This is a huge reason why food sovereignty is important. Food sovereignty is not only about providing enough to eat, but it is also about allowing communities to create food systems that align with cultural and spiritual values. It is also about restoring the connections with the land and traditional foods, which can help with preventing or managing chronic illnesses such as diabetes or heart disease.

That being said, it is important to provide nutrition education and recommendations based on the food that clients have access to, while offering any available community support to improve food access and/or security. We need to take into consideration the social determinants of health and understand that nutrition is not black and white and needs to be individualized.

What guidance would you give to other dietitians about integrating a culturally sensitive approach into their own practice?

We need to listen and meet clients where they are at! Dietetics, in some aspects, is whitewashed—which can make it easy to make assumptions or give biased recommendations. In addition, when it comes to working with Indigenous communities, we need to remember that Indigenous Peoples have been through a lot. This may include generational trauma and experiencing higher rates of things such as food insecurity, addictions, and health disparities compared with the general population, which goes back to the disruption of traditional ways of life. Therefore, if clients are going through issues like these, nutrition is not always going to be put first—and we need to understand that. It’s not just as simple as saying “choose the most nutritious option.” It’s important to be empathetic and to use a culturally sensitive approach, because you never know the full story.

This article was written by Sharon Swampy, RD.